The Denial of the Social Self

Podcast of this post can be found by clicking here

Human existences centers around our social relationships. Humans by nature are social creatures that depend on a social structure for survival. However, humans are also conscious creatures, and can develop habits and mindsets that are counter to this structure. This leads to conflict such as war, violent crime, and taking advantage of others to feel power within a social hierarchy. There are also other human conditions that often stem from false belief systems of individualism and the self-made “man”. These belief systems often cause individual pain such as loneliness, depression, anxiety, and drives some individuals to want to end their own life. However, the conflict between our nature as social beings and our false belief in individualism and individual strife, is also a natural process. Individuals must feel they have an individual sense of purpose in order to make a meaningful contribution to the social structure that maintains human existence. The term often used for this is human motivation, but again it would not exist without the need for social integration and social purpose. 

So why then if this is a natural process, do I call individualism a “false” system? It is false in the sense that it strips away the importance of the social context and world we live in and places too much emphasis on the individual. False in the sense it exaggerates one aspect of the self and the cost to the other. It also creates a situation in which we become detached from our nature towards things that artificially compensate for our lack of social understanding. An example of this includes the need to make wealth as a primary focus of success. While gaining resources is vital to human survival, human survival does not rely on excessive wealth that overly advantages one person, over the other people who work to create that wealth. The interesting part of this discussion is that even this wealth gain has a social underpinning, as it is used to display the individual’s social power and hierarchy within the social system they exist in. The falsehood is, however, is that wealth is rarely because of the individual, it requires a social system to create wealth. For example, Elan Musk would not be a billionaire without the consumer who buys the products is company produces. Taking this further Musk does not build every one of the electric cars his company makes. No this requires many other individuals to build each car, and in order to provide Musk with the idea that he is the builder we dehumanize the efforts of the other individuals by simply calling them the laborer and workers. In this redefining of Musk, he is not self-made person as we would falsely assume under the philosophy of individualism. Rather he is an individual who took advantage of the social structures within the world and exploits that for his own wealth. 

Elon Musk is just on example, as we do not need to only look at the super wealthy to see our world is not made of just individuals but rather a social system. We can look at institutions such as the family system, governmental, and religious structures. Within in any of these systems individuals can exploit to take individual advantage of the system. This can range from domestic violence justification as the “man is the head of the household” to the pastor who has a million-dollar home justifying it as a “gift for his/her service to god”. These two examples both exploit social systems, by justifying the actions under the misguided philosophy of individualism. So why is individualism so powerful?

I stated at the beginning we have two natural systems that are aimed towards one goal human survival through social structures and systems. The first system is the need to belong, and the second system is the need to feel purposeful and meaningful. The second system is what creates motivation within the individual to become socially relevant. When we “feel” relevant we feel a sense of what is commonly referred to as “power”. In this context power is one’s feeling of being in control and untouchable. It is a protective feeling, because of the problems with individualism, we often feel threat from others instead of seeing others as benign. In order then to protect the self, individuals will often exploit the social system to protect their sense of self often called their ego. The problem with this notion is these threats grow from not understanding the social aspects of the human mind and need. Human conflict does not grow from our social world, rather it grows from a broken system of individualism and the need to protect that aspect of the self-system. Therefore, in the example of wealth, money is not the “root of all evil” it is rather a compensation for our lack of social belonging and denial of our social selves, which then creates the conditions for evil to happen.

Presentation to Southern Arizona Association for Education of Young Children Annual 2020 CONFERENCE:


Link to Apple podcast [CLICK HERE]

Himdag Committee Faculty Training Day 2 The Self and Identity Podcast

This training is provided for Faculty, Staff, and the community to understand how the Tohono O'odham Himdag drives the college. Day 2. 
  1. Himdag Committee Faculty Training Day 2
  2. Tohono O'odham Community College Himdag Committee Training
  3. The Importance of Belonging and Connection During Stress and a Pandemic – La importance de la pertenencia y la conexión durante el estrés y una pandemia
  4. Intro to Psychology Series Defining Identity, Belonging, and Loneliness
  5. Intro to Psychology Lecture Series Defining Self-concept

Goals of Presentation:

1.Describe the finding of research during COVID-19 crisis on belonging, social connection, and identity. (Describir el hallazgo de la investigación durante la crisis de COVID-19 sobre pertenencia, conexión social e identidad.)

2.Provide an understanding of how identity influence social belonging and how these two experiences relate to loneliness/connection, depression/intention, hopelessness/hopefulness, meaningless/meaningful, self-destructive behaviors/constructive behaviors.  (Proporcione una comprensión de cómo la identidadinfluye en la pertenencia social y cómo estas dos experiencias se relacionan con la soledad / conexión, la depresión / intención, la desesperanza / esperanza, los comportamientos autodestructivos / constructivos sin sentido / significativos.)

3.Describe the influence of lack of belongingness and social connection influence on immune response which relates to mortality and morbidity. (Describir la influencia de la falta de pertenencia y la influencia de la conexión social en la respuesta inmune que se relaciona con la mortalidad y la morbilidad.)

4.Provide tools to increase identity and belongingness through self development and social connection. (Proporcionar herramientaspara aumentar la identidad y la pertenencia a través del desarrollopersonal y la conexión social.)

[ClICK HERE] Presentation Handout

[CLICK HERE] Spanish version of social belonging and loneliness assessment

[CLICK HERE] English version of social belonging and loneliness assessment


Social Belonging – Beyond a simple emotion

If we look at the majority of psychological research on social belonging we see that it often is reduced to a minor type of emotion that bring a happy feeling when it is there and a sad feeling when it is absent. But over the last few decades we have discovered that social belonging is so much more, in fact, it could be argued that social belonging is the most important part of being human. Much of our knowledge in last couple decades has come from neuroscience which has tried to unlock our knowledge of the social brain.

Studies of our most intimate belonging such as individuals who are romantically in love, have found that love and need to intimately belong are just not mere emotions that can be controlled and manipulated they are basic human drives. The areas of the brain that are active when we are with or reflecting about our intimate partner are the same areas that regulate breathing, hunger, heart rate, and thirst. Indeed the need for intimate connection is a basic biological drive. We find similar findings with other sources of social belonging as well. In fact we are such social being that when we are doing an activity with another person, and are aware of that person and they are aware of us, our brains start to synchronize and mimic each other. This can be seen observing individuals on a first date. If you are a social voyeur like me you may have already done this but if you have not I encourage you to give it a try.

At a restaurant or bar sit and watch people who are meeting each other for the first time. If they like each other their bodies will first orient to each other. If there is a potential for a relationship watch the way they eat and interact, you will see them start to “parrot” each other. Their cups, forks, plates, body positions, breathing, facial expressions all will start mirror each other. While this is not conscious to the individuals it is very apparent to the outside observer. If you are at a place where there is dancing, watch the individuals dance with each other. They will after a few missteps start to partner dance with each other as if they are seasoned experts. Their steps will be in sync their body movements will move gracefully as one moveable object. We can observe the same thing in less intense relationships such as when friends get together or when a group becomes committed to an action. This may seem very negative to bring up at this moment, but even mob behaviors follow these similar synchronize patterns.

Additional evidence of the importance of social belonging is how much of our brain we commit to our social world. Scientist have always felt that the frontal cortex – more specifically – the pre-frontal cortex is what gives rise to human’s intellectual and analytical qualities. Indeed, it is what allows us to do math or read or look at a complex problem and provide several potential solutions. However, upon closer evaluation, very little area of the pre-frontal cortex actually is dedicated to this type of problem solving. Indeed the majority of our pre-frontal cortex becomes active when we are thinking of our social world. In fact, Dr. Lieberman a renowned Social Neuroscientist has coined the social system as the default network system. Not only does this system becomes active when we thinking of social relationships, it becomes active when we are told to think of nothing at all or to stop some type of math problem. The means that even when we are not thinking about our social world, we are thinking about our social world.

Studies of psychopaths, which are individuals who use others as if they were non-human and often take horrible advantage of others has shown damage to the pre-frontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex acts as a regulator for our social behavior. Many of us have had that moment where we want to slap or hit a person in the face. I would almost guess that every human being will have this experience at least once in their life time. The difference between most people and psychopaths is that it is our prefrontal cortex that provide us with the ability to decide “no I am not going to do that because of XYZ”. This pathway that inhibits this impulse tends to be absent in psychopaths. Again providing evidence of our social brain.

So here is our evidence from our brain, what about our behaviors. Well we can see that our need to belong is a drive from human isolation experiments. We find that when a person is given everything they need to biologically survive: food, water, and shelter. When they are denied human contact their body starts to die as if it was starving or dying from thirst. This unfortunately has lead us to one of our most effective types of punishment which is social isolation. In our not so distant past, being with others was a means of survival and being kicked out of a community was almost a guaranteed death sentence. Hence, when people “acted out” they were simply kicked out of the village. Because during this time it was believed that people acted evil, because they were possessed by demons, when kicked out of the village into the woods, this is where the myth of the haunted forest outside the village has its origins. These myths were also used to make sure no one left the village as well, a form of double edged social control sword.

Into modern times, our prison systems use isolation for behavior management. Unfortunately the missing part of this is whenever you “cage” a human being and isolate them from others, humans become aggressive and violent – does not matter if you are a criminal or a clergy – put someone in captivity and they will become the worse version of them. Hence in these conditions the only means of social control become the threat or use of more aggressive means such as weapons. Indeed it is interesting when we look at our prison system. We have spent centuries using the punishment method – understand this logic – punish someone, all sudden they will realize what they did wrong and never do it again. That like taking a fish out of water and expecting it to learn how to breath like humans do. Instead, we find that in some countries and a few in the United States that use social connection as a basis of their correction efforts they do not have the recidivism or over crowding that United States system have. Indeed countries with the lowest criminal recidivism rates are ones where the inmates are treated like humans and not caged animals.

If you think about the happiest moments in our lives they rarely happen when we are alone. They always involve someone else. Indeed if we think about the most happy events they tend to represent the height of human connection. Weddings, graduations, birthdays, a work promotion, buying a house, etc etc all are intensely social events. Some the saddest moments in our lives tend to be when we have the threat of losing someone or the actual loss of someone. Even couples who have amicable divorces experience loneliness and sadness. The loss of a job is a loss of identity and social connection. The loss of a loved one. In our modern time forgetting one’s smartphone at home when going to work can bring some people so much pain they rather risk being fired at work, and go back home to get their phone. The smartphone is a social device, indeed it is our social outsourcing partner. It allows us to connect at a distance, it makes sure we don’t forget our social obligations. These outsourcing devises have become so integral in our need for social connection and belonging, we have had to ban them when our cognitive and thinking resources should be else where such as when we are driving. Bottom line everything that brings us pleasure and pain our social in nature. When that pain becomes too much we will try to seek out non-social means to alleviates them such as using drugs, hoarding behaviors, become obsessed with non-human objects, become materialistic, and in some cases act out towards the social order.

Beyond biology and behavior there are also psychological and emotional aspects of belonging. Susan Fiske identified four psychological motives for belonging: understanding, control, self-enhancement, and trusting. Understanding and control are relatively cognitive and rational processes and within our self-concept model would be evaluated through self-awareness. Self-enhancement and trusting are relatively emotionally/affective based and are more susceptible to irrational thinking and are evaluated more by the self-esteem processes in the self-concept model.

Understanding is our need to have a shared experience and make a situation predictable. Controlling is our need to feel we understand why something happened and what the outcome would should be. When I explained this to my students, I often use the example of asking the students what they would do if I jumped on a table and started to crazy dance. Then I ask the students what would they do? The usual answer is “think you are crazy and just lost it”. Then I explained, what you most likely to do is within the first six seconds you would look to the right then look to the left, and pay attention to other’s reaction. Why? because what they are looking for is (1) am I experiencing the same thing everyone else is (understanding), and (2) what should our reaction be (controlling).

The two more emotional/affective based needs for belonging are self-enhancement and trusting. I am going to start with trusting, because this is not the “normal” type of trust we usually associate with this word. The “normal” trust is when we have a reciprocal relationship with someone and we have this feeling that if we get stuck they be there to help. This type of trust is usually developed in infancy. When baby cries, mom comes and feeds baby, baby is satisfied smiles, mom smiles back, and they have that reciprocal positive emotion assuring next time the baby cries mom will return. While this is a important type of trust and necessary for the development of healthy relationships, the type of trust we are talking about here is the need to see other a benign and non-threatening. In any social situation either consciously or unconsciously the first thing we do is scan the room for threats. Once we determine where is safe and where is threatening, this is when we determine where we will sit and who we will sit with. This is this type of trust. As I said though this is not always rationally based. For example I am not a biker and my only exposure to bikers is what I have seen on T.V. and so walking into a biker bar would be very threatening to me and I probably leave promptly.

In that same vein there are people who find individuals who commit crimes as more safe than individuals who do not commit crimes. This is not rationally based either, and can be seen by looking at research on adopting children out of the foster care system when the child is older than ten years old. If you talk to these children who want to be adopted many report wanting the safe and loving environment normally associated with happy and healthy children and families. Yet when put in that environment greater than 90% will return to their family of origins when they turn 18. Most reporting they did so because they felt more comfortable and safe, even though it is actually can be more dangerous and risky.

Self-enhancement is the need to see one’s self worthy and improvable. But the only reliable source on this is our social world and the feedback it provides. While this may seem simple it is not, as I stated this can be lead a stray as well and trusting. For example a child who is labeled as bad and is constantly told they are a bad child on a rational level you would think that under self-enhancement their motivation would be to become a “good child”, so bringing their behaviors to light should motivate the child not to engage in those behaviors. If you thought that I would encourage you to read the sections on identity again. Who we are like and who best fits our behaviors is the identity we take on in our personal and social world. Therefore the positive motivation for a “bad child” is not to become a “good child” no rather it is to become the baddest and worst child they can be. This allows them to have congruency between their behavior and what people tell them they are in this world. And I hope from our discussion on incarceration you cannot punish someone into being good. Again what makes these difference in evaluation: the social situation a person is raised in and is currently experiencing. What happens when we do not meet our belonging needs? This is where we are heading – into the world of loneliness.

Personal Reflections on Inequality in United States: Myth or Fact.

Ever since I started college and began learning about historical events that occurred in the United States that were not taught to me in High School and grade school I have often wondered what this thing they call “prejudice” and “discrimination” really was and did it really still exist in the United States? Unfortunately, until I could come to terms with my own white privilege and place I was raised which consisted of 90% or more white people, my pursuit was only limited to scholarly understanding. Since that time, I have read 1000s of articles and books on the topic of race and inequality in the United States. When I say 1000s, I am not talking about the crap you find on the internet with a google search, YouTube, Facebook memes, and FOX or CNN news. No, I am talking about articles and books written by individuals who have devoted their entire life to understanding race and inequality issues in the United States. Indeed, some of my favorite are 

  • “Man, Interrupted” Phillip Zimbardo, 
  • “White Trash” Nancy Isenberg”, 
  • “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” Roxanne Dunbar-Oritz, 
  • “Abandoned Families: Social Isolation in the Twenty-First Century” Kristin Seefeldt, 
  • “Delusions of Gender”, Cordelia Fine, 
  • “The Self Illusion” Bruce Hood
  • “Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide” Andrea Smith

And some of my classic favorites include: 

  • “Drunken Comportment” MacAndrew and Edgerton
  • “The Nature of Prejudice” Gordon Allport
  • “Resolving Social Conflict” Kirt Lewin
  • “Man’s Search for Meaning” Victor Frankl

These are just a few examples of the extent I have went to try and understand this thing we call prejudice, inequality, and injustice. The question I have always asked up to the last several years is – why can I only understand this from an intellectual perspective? To answer this question, it has taken a lot of introspection between what I call my personal enlightenment years and my lived experience until that point. 

To explain this I feel I need to give the reader an understanding of my lived experience as an American before my years of what I call enlightenment which started in earnest in 2014 and 2017, but has some roots in experiences I had in 2010 and 2011 when I moved from Southeast Idaho to Arizona. I was born and raised in Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming, where the population distribution was greater than 85% white and provided very little comparative experience to other people of color, differing cultural background, and identity differences such as gender and sexual orientation which were well hidden due to cultural and predominate religious reasons. My family would be considered working class with my dad working most of his years in construction and my mom managing restaurants. I would say this experience did provide me with some personal attributes I do find important such as the meaning of hard work and earning your keep. However, due to lack of exposure to the wider American experience it led me to the believe in the myth of the “self-made man”, a myth which states that any person who is willing to work hard can make it in America. I can go on about this myth and explanation why it is a myth but instead I would encourage you to read “White Trash” by Nancy Isenberg and “The Self Illusion” by Bruce Hood. In my family history my father always made jokes about the “Mexican spick” and how they are where they are because they are lazy. Because I had such a strong mother, who throughout my childhood was the strength and glue that held our family together, I was ignorant to the strife of women in America. I came to believe that prejudice and inequality were a thing of the past and was nothing more than good Hollywood. However, when I entered college in the 90s I took some history classes and psychology classes which made me reevaluate these perspectives, hence my intellectual journey. But it would not be until my years of enlightenment that I really did not have a personal understanding of the intellectual understanding I had come to know. 

Pre-Enlightened Experiences

To say that over a course of a few years I became enlightened would be a mistake. So, I like to provide some lived experiences that I believe allowed me to open my heart and mind later in my life. My first was a college experience in which I became a close friend to a co-worker at a college job I had. One day when I was entering work he asked me to come meet someone; upon approach I thought this person must be his male friend or maybe a brother by the affection they displayed at greeting each other. But he introduced him as his partner and proceeded to tell me about their relationship. To be honest, I do not remember much of it because I had a belief shattering moment. Because in my family, my father taught that being gay was a learned experience and it is exposure to that lifestyle that made one gay. Yet I had no desire to enter into a romantic relationship with another man? Indeed, we continued to be close friends and I never even developed a romantic interest in same sex – nothing happened. Sometimes I wonder if I was more disappointed in that rather than disconfirming my long-held family bias. 

Other lived experience in priming me for an understanding of prejudice and inequality, were my years working with survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse, working with female rapists and murders in prison, and issues related to working with children and families of childhood sexual abuse. However, this work was always done in the safe comfort of the white community I was raised in. 

The Enlightenment Years

So, I want to define enlightenment, because this does not mean complete understanding, nor does it mean I have lived the harsh conditions many individuals do in the United States especially. This simply means, for me, I now have the experience that reinforce my intellectual inquiry and solidifies my belief system. I would like to start this conversation first with some of my most recent experiences. For the past three years – going on four – I am in a relationship and now married to the love of my life who is also an American born Mexican. I also have been working for a Tribal college in Southern Arizona. While my first experience with racism was in 2011 to 2013 when I lived in Yuma Arizona and half my friends and family unfriended me on social media because I started posting pictures of friends and women I dated that were American-Mexican, I did not really feel personally the effect until I fell in love with my wife Elsa. When Elsa and I started dating she warned me about the “looks” we would get, and the negative attitude people would have. Because at the time I was so infatuated with her I really did not give that much thought. It was not until I started to pay more attention to our surroundings that I came to understand what she was stating. 

Walking together in Northside of Tucson Arizona. The first time I really understood what Elsa was trying to say is when we walked through a store on the Northside of Tucson Arizona which is predominantly a white community. Walking I looked around and saw the looks of shame on other men’s faces, the snickering of white females as they looked Elsa and I up and down and shaking their heads. I remember walking by a couple who looked at us in disgust and then hid their faces as they engaged in derogatory talk about Elsa and I thinking we could not hear it. I have also felt the institutional racism that I had read about in many books and articles. Although Elsa and I have similar credits scores, similar disposable income, and both have good paying jobs when going to get loans for a house and a car the mortgage broker and the car dealer both recommended that only I apply for the loan because “it will look more appealing to the potential lenders”. 

Probably the worse experience I have had when experiencing the prejudice in my wife’s life is when I got in an argument on Facebook with my brother, which started off advocating for better ways of dealing with children’s behavior instead of resorting to physical punishment. During this argument my brother stated, “I would shoot any brown person who came on to my property”. This was a direct threat to my wife and my stepchildren, and I have since disowned this brother. But my brother’s attitude is a good example when someone who has limited social experience and worldly experience thinks they are right and just. Another experience is when Elsa, myself, and my two of my stepchildren went to a party which was predominantly white in a white community. Because my stepchildren are amazing people they immediately started helping prepare food after a while some white guests at the party came and asked them when the food was going to be ready and they should hurry. Later they admitted that they thought they were catering for the party and not guests, because of their appearance. While I can give several other examples, I hope the reader understands this is an issue. Working for a tribal college I have also come to a better understanding of racism in the United States. 

I can tell several stories of racial injustice working for a tribal college, but because I do not have the individuals who were involved permission, I will focus on the strange response I get when I tell people I work for a tribal college. First of all, I want to let the reader know why I teach and work in higher education, specifically community-based colleges. The reason is because I love education, specifically I am passionate about the study or psychology which is the scientific inquiry of behavior and mental processes. Because I come from a working-class background I want people from a similar background to have my experiences I have with higher education, hence I chosen the community college setting. I did not get into higher education for social justice reasons or because I saw some great inequalities in education. However, over course of my teaching experience I have come to advocate for these issues. Especially when needing to confront the limitations of our knowledge and educational system which tends to be WEIRD (western, industrial, rich, and democratically oriented). In 2017 I started working for a tribal college, I have come to appreciate the meaning and purpose of this type of college. I have also come to appreciate the tribe that I work for and their customs and beliefs. This experience has opened my mind to different ways of understanding knowledge and experience not based in the WEIRD mindset of western education. In other words, the people I work for have probably taught and enlightened me far more than what I have to offer them. But what has surprised me is the response of non-natives when I tell them I work for a tribal college. Here are just a few statements I have heard:

  • “that must be incredibly hard work, working for ‘those’ people”
  • “they are fortunate to have you, hopefully you will make a difference”
  • “don’t you think your talents could be better spent teaching others”
  • “they are so lucky to have you”
  • “make sure you know you will only change ‘things’ in spoonful not shovel full”

While I like to think this is a positive reflection on me, it is more of a reference to beliefs about Native Americans. In the four other colleges and universities I have worked for I never heard these statements, and really is a reflection of the overt and covert biases we hold. 

So, what is the purpose of me telling you this story and me rambling on about my experiences? Because at one point in my life I truly thought racial and social injustice were a myth and something of the past. I believed from an egocentric perspective that it was the individual who determined there future and purpose in life. However, my educational and personal experience has led me to understand that a person’s place (failures and successes) in life is an interaction between many factors. Indeed, in equation terms a person’s place is a function of the interaction between the individual, social context, economic resources, and cultural beliefs and attitude. It is not until we step out of our simple and self-comforting space and understand that lived experience is a complex combination of many factors that we truly can understand the problems we face as a country and a world. 

How Social Identity Influences Social and Emotional Loneliness

Dissertation Results on: “How Social Identity Influences Social and Emotional Loneliness”.
In my research, I tested whether or not individuals will evaluate their level of loneliness when thinking about their identity as tied to a group (in this case being a college student) versus thinking about one’s personal qualities, or two other control conditions. I found that when individuals are asked to write five qualities of being a college student their level loneliness is significantly less than the other control conditions and almost half as lonely when compared to writing down five personal qualities.
Why does this matter?
Recently, several experts in the field of psychology and medicine are calling loneliness a modern public health problem that is occurring on a scale that has not been seen since loneliness started being measured in the 1920s. Along with the associated negative outcomes such as mortality rates, increase the risk of cancer and other life-threatening diseases, obesity, diabetes, and of course increased the risk of mental health issues such as depression and suicidal thought. Indeed in my research 53% of participants stated “more or less”, “yes”, or “absolutely yes” to the following statement “I experience a general sense of emptiness”. However, very little research, outside the clinical setting, has looked at how to reduce loneliness within the immediate situational context. This research was one of the first to look at the immediate situational variable (thinking of social identity) to see if the situation can influence one’s level of loneliness. Indeed, this research suggested that by focusing on qualities of a social nature decreases a person’s evaluation of emotional loneliness (the evaluation of not having enough significant emotional connections with others) and social loneliness (the evaluation of not have a sufficient number of social connections).
Another aspect of this research is that it supports the theoretical assumption that emotions are more dependent on the situation the person is in, rather than emotions being something that is transient and is independent of the situation. The last important aspect of this research, which is discipline specific, is that it is the first to experimentally test the relations between a group process and emotional state such as loneliness, to see if group process influences one’s emotional outcome, effectively bridging two fields within psychology – the study of intra/intergroup processes and emotions experimentally. However, because this is novel research and first to experimentally test these variables together, further research and replication are needed, to see if these findings hold to the scrutiny of the scientific process.
For anyone who is interested I have provided a link to the abstract and downloadable copy of the full dissertation: https://scholarworks.waldenu.edu/dissertations/5772/

Emotional Loneliness

I have written many articles on here about loneliness and rejection, mainly because as a social psychologist I believe that these two variables are a root cause of many of our social and psychological problems in the world. One type of loneliness that I have sort of understood intellectually and partly definition wise is emotional loneliness. Emotional loneliness is defined as not have a significant emotional connection with at least one other person. I say at least because we all have different needs and a number of emotional connections. But what has perplexed me as a social psychologist is cases in which a person has several emotionally meaningful and connected relationship, but still feels a deep sense of emotional loneliness. This has perplexed me until I realized that emotionally close relationship is connected with parts of our self-definition and identity – that it is not about how many emotional connections we have, but whether or not given emotional connections bring about a better understanding of who we are and reinforce core aspects of our identity as individuals. Let me provide an example from my own life.

For the last two years, I have been plagued by bouts of loneliness, depression, and anxiety. I have tried all the individual psychology techniques to deal with these issues that included: therapy, medication, self-help books, and yes even negative coping mechanisms such as drinking. But none of these were able to dull or alleviate my sense of extreme emotional loneliness and corresponding depression and anxiety. What bothered me was I had plenty of emotionally supportive and meaningful relationships: my kids and my family, but also some very close friends who would message me right back anytime I felt down or needed help – this was my mental block when it came to the loneliness that I was experiencing: I had very close and emotionally supportive relationships that I knew I could tell and experience anything with.

But recently, I started to look at core aspects of myself and identity, and asked a simple question: what part of who I am is missing and is suffering? I looked at being a dad. The answer was no, my kids love me, and we would do anything for each other. Is it my career and being a psychologist? I looked at my current research, and my current teaching position and the answer was no, my co-workers, even though I only been at my current college for six weeks, already tell me how much they valued my work and excited that I am here. Is it being a son or a brother? Well I know me, and my brothers do not talk a lot but recent events over the summer I know without a doubt we are always here there each other. And my relationship with my mom is very emotionally connected. What about being a friend? Here again, I can say recent events in my life have shown me that I am a good friend, with deep emotional connections, and my friends are amazing in return. Then I turned my attention to the importance of being an intimate partner and the value that has in my life. I know from past intimate partnerships that I placed a high value on being a good intimate partner. I came to realize that this area of my life was an issue. I realized that for the last two years I had failed miserably at keeping and maintaining a close significant intimate relationship with someone else. Indeed, at the time I made this realization, I was trying to maintain a non-existent intimate relationship with someone, and in my desire to maintain that I am a good intimate partner, a lot of dysfunction and yes emotional disconnect arose from that situation.

As a psychologist, I started to understand, my experience started to highlight that other aspect of emotional loneliness, that despite having so many emotionally connected relationship I was: (1) lacking one in a core area of who I was, and (2) I was willing to stay in a dysfunctional situation thinking that if I could make it work it would make everything okay. In addition to this, the relationship had become a self-defeating cycle, where in my mind I had to try harder, I had to impress more – which after rejection – lead to feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. Loneliness, worthlessness, and feelings of hopelessness are key ingredients in both depression and anxiety.

So, what did I do? I ended the dysfunctional relationship, engaged myself in other emotional close relationships, and for the first time in two years, I have lived with no depression, no anxiety, no emotional loneliness. Not only have I seen the relief of these I feel closer to my other emotionally close relationships – I see my kids, my family, and my friendship in a vibrant and fulfilling new light. I also learned something through this process, I learned that my identity as an intimate partner is not damaged, I only allowed myself to see it as damaged and that there was something wrong with me. I think all too often, especially in intimate relationships, we blame ourselves and feel there must be something wrong with me if the other person does not respond the way an intimate partner should respond.

My journey, I hope this helps others understand what is meant by emotional loneliness, and how it is connected to a part of our core identities. We can have many emotional close relationships, but when a relationship is lacking is a core aspect of who we are it can drive many of our negative emotions and even drive disordered behavior. Letting go of toxic relationships that are not emotionally fulfilling and do not support part of our own core identity can lead to better health and well-being.

Rejection is a pain – 10 ways to reduce it happening in intimate relationships.


To start this article, I want to begin with a simple premise: Physical pain and the pain from being rejected are the same. The human brain and the brain of other social animals reacts the same whether someone is dying from a chronic illness, being shocked, or being dumped by an intimate partner or being denied entry into a group. However, we for some reason like to separate the two, and place rejection within the realm of emotions (which as humans we falsely think are controllable) and physical injury in the domain of the uncontrollable (after all it was not their fault the sidewalk was there when they fell off their bike while trying to do a hand stand). What I mean by these statements is we tend to empathize with physical injury and forgive the reasons, but we tend to consider the suffering from reject as a sign of weakness and not being of hardy stalk. However, our world view of rejection is wrong, and by correcting this view, we can heal from the pain of rejection better, heal faster, and regain a sense of stability. To do this I think it is useful to use a common form of rejection and that is intimate partner rejection and I want to compare that to a more long-term physical disease such as cancer. I like this analogy because both rejection of an intimate partner and the development of cancer can occur very quickly or they both can sit dormant for years until an escalating moment. The second, is once cancer and the possibility of the loss of an intimate partner is made apparent both disease states tend to accelerate in their progression. Third, once the cancer is removed or the person leaves there is no guarantee of recovery or that one will not experience the disease ever again. Finally, I think this is a good analogy because we need to be honest both cancer and rejection from a close intimate partner can both lead to death. Indeed, the number one cause of homicide in the United States is intimate partner homicide, and over the past three decades cheating – the ultimate form of rejection – has become the number one reason for intimate partner homicide. Additionally, suicidal behavior is often followed by rejection, especially of a close intimate partner. With these four similarities in mind let us move on and explore how we can heal successfully.

I want to start our comparison by first stating a simple disease step model, I think by using this simple model it will be easier to come to understand how rejection occurs and the pain process:

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There are a few qualities of this comparison that I like to make. First is that it is a progression, while it may seem like it at times, when two people are truly intimately connected they do not just wake up one morning and say “I am leaving”. There is always a progression that continually erodes the relationship much like a cancer erodes and destroys a healthy body. A good example of this is research that interviewed divorced individuals and indicated that when the individual really starts to analyze their relationship, the relationship started to erode about two years before the individuals start to realize there is a problem.

The second thing that I hope the reader recognizes is that while this is a very general model, the processes are almost identical – BUT – the major difference is how the individual tends to respond, especially as both diseases progress. This is largely due to our belief systems that (1) a person should have control over their relationship, and (2) if there is a problem one should be able to fix it, if the couple ‘really’ loves each other. I think it is worth taking some time exploring these two faulty belief systems. The first is the illusion of control, the fact is, you and your partner, can do everything perfect. You can follow all the relationship advise, treat each other with complete respect, cherish one another completely, and guess what? – You can still end up being a divorce statistic. Please do not take this as a criticism of humans and our ability to have long lasting relationships. Remember the analogy between physical disease and rejection. A person can eat right, exercise, refrain from toxins and they can still end up having cancer or dying young of heart disease. This same principle applies to human relationships. With that being said, we should not end up be complete skeptics of our health or our relationships. The person who eats right and exercises will have a much better quality of life even if they still end up with a disease. The same goes with relationships, while all relationships may end, the more we invest healthily into them the higher the quality of experiences we have. The second illusion that if two people really love each other they should be able to fix it, I think comes from our overall illusion that we can also control our own fate.

Especially in highly individualistic societies, like the one here in the United States, individuals tend to believe that everything good and bad that a person does OR that a person experiences is solely due to the actions and beliefs of that individual. In other words, we maintain bad beliefs such as “she broke up with you because you are a bad person”, or “If he can’t love you because of who you are, no one else is going to either”. Now we should qualify this, because for much of western society’s history we did this with physical diseases, so once we believed that people got cancer because the gods were punishing them for being a sinner, or a person has a mental illness because they had a weak mind that allowed them to be possessed by some demon. It was not until western medicine and science started to debunk these myths that we started to see physical diseases as we do today – Although there are still some people who believe that diseases are a punishment from god, but that a whole other article.  It is in this same tradition of science that I write this article, in that we know enough scientifically about human relationships, that placing the entire fault for rejection on a single person or a single occurrence or process is ridiculous. So, if it is not because one person changes, that ruins a relationship, then what is it? As you think about this question you probably thinking that it is an unsolvable question, but it is actually fairly simple, change is the culprit to eventual rejection. But before I explain this there is one more faulty belief system that we must first address. That faulty belief is that we as individuals do not change greatly over time, and that our personality, beliefs, and who we are at the core does not change. The fact is you will be a different person five years from now than you are today. Indeed, you probably been a different person several times today already. Let me provide a simple example, what if someone secretly recorded you alone in your bedroom, out with friends at night, playing with your kids, and let us say giving a big work presentation. I am willing to bet if I blurred your face and changed your voice in each scenario and played it back to you, you would report seeing and hearing four (amazing) but different individuals. The truth is we are who we are based on (a) the demands of the situation, (b) our skills and ability to respond to the situation, and (c) our ability to comprehend the situation. Additionally, each situation demands something different from us, and therefore we must respond to a situation differently. However, because it would make us crazy to think we have so many different selves, which would lead us to feeling very unstable, our mind and brain have developed the illusion that we are consistent and stable overtime. In fact, we have gotten so good at this that we can change memories going clear back into childhood to make them congruent with who we are today without even realizing it is happening. The problem is, if I am stable and that is core to who I am, then my relationships remain stable and the same, because they are also core to my own identity. Therefore, any time a person has relationship difficulties, they sadly try to reset the relationship to “how we use to be when we first fell in love”. As you can guess, this almost always ends up failing. Indeed, most successful couples when they reach a point of recognizing their relationship has eroded, recognize first how much they and their partner has changed, and instead of rekindling the old flame, they go through process of courting and falling in love with this new person and leave that old relationship behind. It is as Mignon McLaughlin stated, “A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person” – but should add with the same person as they are today.

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So the question that remains is given that any relationship no matter of the healthy behaviors the couple engages in, how does one have a long lasting relationship and decrease the chances of eventual rejection and loss.


#1 – Engage in healthy relationship behaviors, say “I love you” daily, touch, communicate, be honest with feelings for each other, doing things together, etc. For this there are plenty of relationship books that can help couples learn exercises of a health relationship.


#2 – Self-awareness. The ability to recognize one’s own physical and mental state as it relates to one’s situation is what we call self-awareness. We often go through our day with a narrow window of self-awareness because that all we really need to get through the common roles we have in life. However, it is advised to at least once a week for at least 30 minutes a person becomes completely self-aware of their physical, social, and psychological world. After which, engaging in self-reflection about how one is doing, how one is changing, and how one is feeling about their current situation is an important and provides a person with a guide. This can be done through several mediums such as journaling, yoga, meditation, prayer (if your religious), or any form activity that allows you to be aware of where you are completely as a person.


#3 – Recognize and embrace change. Accept that change is going to happen and that means you will need to continually work at your relationship. Never assume that your relationship is like a rock and is unbendable or unbreakable.


#4 – Continually try new things. Stagnation is like stopping exercise or eating right when it comes to relationship health. Yes there are times in all our lives when we do the day-to-day grind. However, actively seeking ways to engage one’s interest, discover new things, and engage one’s world differently can provide great learning opportunities and relationship bonding moments.


#5 – This probably should be number 1 – but remember if you decide to live in a radioactive bucket – do not be surprised if you get cancer. In same vein, if you live your life with toxic people, do not be surprised if you always are experiencing rejection and loss. Sometimes the people we desire  – are reason for our disease – just like I know if I continue eating chocolate cake I will gain weight and run risk of heart disease.


#6 – Be human! Often, we think that the perfect relationship is a relationship without conflict and problems. We forget that relationships are made by imperfect people, and therefore are inherently not perfect. Be honest with feelings, do not hide your faults, and encourage your partner to do the same.


#7 – Do not ignore other social relationships. Sometimes we can get so caught up in the excitement of an intimate relationship we let other important relationships in our lives weaken or even completely abandoned. Remember that we are a social creators, and we all have a differing needs for both social connections and emotional connections. When we do not maintain the needed level for both, we can find ourselves in deep despair, loneliness, and possibly depression. While it is wonderful to fall in love, remember that you both need to fall in love with each other’s complete world.


#8 – Maintain connection through common beliefs. Interestingly the idea of opposite attracts is not true when it comes to long successful relationships. Indeed, individuals who are in long-term relationships – and are still in love – have the same or similar belief systems and attitudes. Identify these early on in a relationship and nurture them together.


#9 – Intimate relationship that include sexuality, should be a vibrant sexuality. I often gross out my younger students when lecturing on long-term relationships, because I ask “how many have grandparents who were married for most of their lives and still really love each other?”. I then explain to these students that when it comes to sexuality, your grandparents were – and still probably are – freaks in the bedroom. Indeed, we find that individuals in long-term loving relationships tend to try new things, get adventurous with each other, and never let their sexually intimate life become stagnate. Now there are always those exceptions where one or both partners, usually due to health problems, lose interest in sex and we know that sex interests vary across the life span. We still find that individual who are going through a period of low sexuality or loss of their sexual life, tend to compensate in different ways such as increasing and diversifying other pleasurable couple activities.


#10 – Understand your own ‘life space’ and the life space of your partner. A famous social psychologist, Kirt Lewin, introduced the idea of life space, as a way to try and visually represent human behavior. If you can imagine a large bubble, that contains all of a person possibilities, then you understand visually what one’s life space is. But first what is meant by all of a person’s possibilities? Lewin recognized that every situation that we find our self in there is a range of possible reactions to that situation. All of one’s possible reactions is one’s life space. So, let me give an example, a school teacher who is making 40,000 a year, is at a car show where she is presented with the opportunity to purchase a $200,000 luxury car. Is this part of the teacher’s life space or range of possibilities? Given her income, cost of insurance, other financial obligations, the probability of buying the luxury car given the teacher’s current life space is very very small. Now the teacher recognizing that the car is not within her current life space can do things to add to it, life get a higher paying job, pay off lots of bills etc etc. But unfortunately, we do not live in a world of what we could do, we often live in the here and now, and understanding our current life space helps us understand our limits and abilities when it comes to actually engaging in a intimate relationship. Once we are aware of it, then and only then can we recognize how it will impact our current relationship, but also what we need to work at, so that the range of possibilities within a relationship can increase through the expansion of our own life space. The other reason for bring up the concept of life space is we often need to recognize the boundaries of our partner’s life space. If you are approaching a relationship with the intent on changing someone, you might as well start saving for the divorce now. For a person to change they must recognize the limitations of their own life space and have the tools and ability to expand their space. Now this does not mean if someone does not meet all your standards that you should not consider being in a relationship with them, but it does mean that you will need to sacrifice something to have that relationship – and sometimes sacrifice is okay.


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